Did the Sun Really Stand Still?

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Interpretative Issues Concerning the Long Day of Joshua 10

The account of the sun standing still, and all of the associated events recorded in chapter 10 of the Old Testament book of Joshua, have inspired a great deal of both derision and debate. Popular skepticism and many in academia reject the description of the miraculous, particularly in this account, due to the scientific difficulties involved.  Meanwhile, biblical scholars themselves have proposed several explanations, each with its own set of problems. The effort to explain the statements about the sun and moon standing still in the sky as Joshua and the Israelites pressed the battle against their enemies is where most interpretations diverge. The traditional viewpoint takes these statements at face value, while other viewpoints argue for alternative understandings of the text, or reject the truthfulness of the text altogether. One noted scholar admits, “None of the explanations is entirely satisfactory,”[1] while another concedes that, “Many plausible elements can be found in almost every solution.”[2] But where then is the average reader to turn, and what then can be believed, when it comes to this account? With such an unsettled state among even the scholars, how much confidence can be placed in any particular interpretation?  To begin to answer these questions, a refocusing on the details present in the Scripture itself, and a careful consideration of where those details lead, is necessary not only to limit unsupported speculation, but may also help in bringing to light a more unified view. With such a goal in mind, this brief examination will attempt to show that closer attention to the text itself will not only narrow the interpretive options, but also highlight that a real event took place, which was intended to bring refreshment and victory to a tired Israelite army.

Conforming Interpretative Views to the CONTEXT of Joshua

The book of Joshua reads as an ancient record of the conquests of the Israelites as they entered, fought, and eventually settled in Canaan. Geographical locations are spelled out in detail, along with the descriptions of battles and the strategies used. Nevertheless, many interpretative views substantially sever the connection of the text with a real event. One scholar suggests for instance, that the story of Israel and the Gibeonites was likely nothing more than a fable added to the book for political purposes. “The YHWH temple at Gibeon,” he writes, “was probably abolished in the course of Josiah’s religious reform. The Gibeonites’ strong opposition to the closing of their temple is reflected in the satirical polemic initiated by a [Deuteronomic] author against the Gibeonites and their elders.”[3] Thus, it is alleged that the story in Joshua was invented, “in reaction to the resistance of the Gibeonites”[4] to Josiah’s reforms. Such a viewpoint dismisses the idea that the sun or moon stopped in the sky as pure fiction. The alternative offered, however, is entirely speculative itself, and ignores the context of Joshua as a detailed, ancient record, claiming (without any actual proof) this part of Joshua was just thrown in for a political reason.

Others claim portions of the text are prose, comparing them to the poetic references of stars fighting for Israel mentioned in Deborah’s song (Judg. 5:20), or the sun and moon standing still in Habakkuk’s prayer (Hab. 3:11). Richard Hess notes the specific phrases about the sun and moon follow a chiastic structure.[5] David M. Howard, Jr. suggests, “The language is similar to the psalmist’s who urges the rivers to clap their hands and the mountains to sing for joy.”[6]

Indeed, the book of Jashar, mentioned by Joshua as a record of this event, is believed to refer to a book that preserved nationalistic songs.[7] It is plausible that phrases in Joshua were quoted from such a book and would indeed be poetic. Nevertheless, this does not preclude those statements from any historical accuracy. As mentioned above, the context of Joshua implies the account was making every effort to be factual. As one scholar notes, “Remarkably, every geographical aspect of this campaign—from the ascent of Beth-Horon to turning back to Debir—fits the geography of the regions in which the events transpired.”[8] He then asks the obvious, “Why would the Joshua conquest accounts offer such specific and verifiable geographical data were they not reflective of actual historical events?”[9]

Thus, the weaknesses of the preceding interpretations are that they impose solutions that are contrary to the context of the book of Joshua as a whole, which presents itself as a detailed record of events with real geographical places. The accuracy of the geographical detail alone, attests to this.

Conforming Interpretative Views to the TEXT of Joshua

In fact, there are interesting clues to be found in the text itself. For instance, Joshua prays, “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and moon, over the Valley of Aijalon” (Josh. 10:12b, HCSB).[10] Gibeon was east of the Valley of Aijalon implying Joshua was not asking for the sun to stand directly overhead, but for the sun to remain in the east, while the moon remained in the west. This is apparently contradicted by the next verse, which says, “So the sun stopped in the middle of the sky” (Josh 10:13), but the Hebrew word translated “middle” is far more often translated as “half.” The apparent contradiction is reconciled if Joshua was asking the sun to remain on its half of the sky while the moon remained on the other half. Furthermore, the fact Joshua asked the sun to stand still in the east implies it was still morning when Joshua spoke. This suggests Joshua was not asking for more daylight to finish a battle, but for a cooler day in which to fight it. The Israelites had, according to verse nine, just marched all night long.

Many interpretative views latch on to some of these details, but often fail to account for all. A scientist suggests Joshua’s long day could be explained by a meteor. He writes, “A night-time airburst comparable in energy to a nuclear bomb explosion many times greater than Hiroshima would be seen as the sun shining at night.”[11] Perhaps, but only for a few seconds. The event in Joshua 10 lasted for “almost a full day” (Josh. 10:13b). Benedictus de Spinoza believed Joshua’s long day could be explained by “the presence of hail in the air, together with the empirical knowledge that hail in the air causes additional light.”[12] It is entirely unconvincing, however, that anyone would mistake hail for the sun itself. Hail storms, meteors, and other suggestions such as solar eclipses simply do not last for an entire day as the text of the story describes.

Another view argues the description of the sun and moon, especially the statements that the sun or moon “stood still” or “stopped,” merely reflect the normal language of ancient omens regarding the movement of the sun and moon across the sky. John H. Walton argues that when the full moon occurred, “on the wrong day” it was, “believed to be an omen of all sorts of disaster, including military defeat and overthrow of cities.”[13]  While at least addressing a contextual matter from ancient times, this view has two primary difficulties. First, there simply is no mention in the text that the opposing armies viewed this as an omen, or any mention that omens were important enough to the Israelites that Joshua would ask for one. The book presents miracles as factual accounts, and thus it seems more likely that the same book that described the Israelite force crossing the Jordan after God divided the waters, would likewise be clear that merely an omen was in view if that was the case in Joshua 10. Instead the natural reading of the text, especially after the Jordan crossing and the miraculous victory at Jericho, is that something miraculous happened here with the sun and moon. Secondly, the appearance of the sun and moon in opposition at any point, is not something that would last for “about a whole day,” as the text describes unless the sun and moon indeed stopped their motion.

The text provides several other clues as well. For instance, verse 12 begins with a Hebrew word that is translated into English as “then.” This is not a sequential ordering, however. Howard writes the Hebrew specifically, “introduces important action that took place at the same time…That is, somehow the hailstorm of v. 11 and the phenomena of vv. 12-13 either were one and the same thing or (more probably) they happened at the same time.”[14] Even in English, the text prefaces Joshua’s prayer with: “On the day the LORD gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the LORD in the presence of Israel: Sun stand still over Gibeon…” (Josh. 10:12a). Accordingly, Joshua could have prayed this at any time during that day. A morning prayer is consistent with the position of the sun and moon mentioned earlier, and again indicates Joshua’s motive was more than simply having extra time.  Thus, the text itself strengthens some views, but weakens others.

Conforming Interpretative Views to the CIRCUMSTANCES of Joshua

Beyond the context of the book and the text, the circumstances surrounding scene in Joshua 10, also impact interpretative views. As has already been mentioned, the Israelite army had marched all night. It is reasonable that Joshua would not ask the sun to stop overhead where the heat of the day could weaken his army. D. Ralph Davis takes this further, noting that the Hebrew verbs translated “stand still” and “stopped” can be translated to say the sun and moon gave less light than normal. He writes, “Which activity of the sun and moon is Joshua prohibiting? Most assume it is their movement. But why could it not be their shining?”[15] This view gains strength from the circumstances of the story, although the historical circumstances regarding the interpretation of these words are less supportive.

Re-translating these words would mean some of the earliest interpretations of the Hebrew by Jews and Christians alike would have been wrong for thousands of years. The Wisdom of Sirach, written in the second century BC, references Joshua 10, saying “And didn’t one day become as two” (Sir. 46:4, WEBA). Writing in the first century AD, Josephus notes, “That the day was lengthened at this time, and was longer than ordinary, is expressed in the books laid up in the temple.”[16] That the Hebrew has been interpreted this way for thousands of years, strengthens the position that the movement of the sun is the correct understanding.

However, tradition is not the same as proof.  It must be admitted that the Hebrew word translated “stand still” also means “hold peace, quiet self, rest” and many other descriptive terms. The Hebrew word translated into English as “stopped,” is also flexible enough to include “standing behind” or “cease,” perhaps in the sense of shining less, or standing behind the clouds. Since the hailstorm is specifically connected to this event by the Hebrew text, it could be argued the storm had something to do with the sun shining less than usual, or the sky remaining darker than usual.  This particular natural phenomenon certainly could have lasted “about a whole day.”

The circumstances of Joshua 10 do indicate a more refreshing day was a reasonable motive, even if the sun was stationary or appeared to remain in the east, which is consistent with the text. The hailstorm would have certainly blocked any overhead sunlight, perhaps only allowing sunlight to the east, while raining deadly judgment upon Israel’s enemies. Although Howard rightly observes “the traditional interpretation cannot be ruled out merely because it involves a phenomenon of colossal magnitude,”[17] it is nevertheless true the traditional interpretation does not rule out that a cooler day was the whole point. It is also consistent with the text, albeit not with historical interpretation, that the cooler day was accomplished by lessening the intensity of the sun’s shining, a possibility in which the storm may have played a role, therefore not necessitating a stoppage of the actual motion of the sun and moon across the sky.

Conclusion

This analysis therefore proposes that the context of the book of Joshua argues in favor of a real event, and when all details are considered, many speculative interpretations of Joshua 10 can be reasonably rejected. The interpretation that the sun and moon stopped their motion in the sky is a natural and traditional reading of the text, which is consistent with the context of the book and the power of God. However, the text itself also allows for an interpretation that the sun was shining with less intensity throughout the day. It is even possible from the text that this was because of the clouds surrounding a hailstorm sent by God. Thus, the interpretative options are narrowed, leaving out some views, but the text continues to allow some flexibility.  Nevertheless, whether the sun and moon appeared to stop their motion, or whether the intensity of the sunlight was lessened, the circumstances including the position of the sun in the east, the condition of the army after a long march, and the presence of the intense storm, suggest the primary motive of Joshua’s request, or at least the ultimate result of it, was the refreshment of his army for the day’s battle and the subsequent destruction of Israel’s enemies by God.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Richard S. Hess, Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6 of the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. Donald J. Wiseman (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), loc. 3069, Kindle.

[2] David M. Howard, Jr., Joshua, vol. 5 of The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, ed. E. Ray Clendenen and Kenneth A. Mathews (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishers, 1998), loc. 6672, Kindle.

[3] Nadav Na’aman, “The Sanctuary of the Gibeonites Revisted,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 9 no. 2 (2009): 117, accessed December 8, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156921109X12520501747714.

[4] Ibid., 112.

[5] Hess, Joshua: Introduction and Commentary, loc. 3044, Kindle.

 [6] Howard, Joshua, loc. 6743, Kindle.

 [7] Hess, Joshua: Introduction and Commentary, loc. 3072, Kindle.

[8] John M. Monson, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2012), loc. 10718, Kindle.

[9] Ibid., loc. 10861.

[10] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible

[11] Euan G. Nisbet, “Joshua 10, the Gibeon strewn meteorite field in Namibia, and the Chelyabinsk fall,” The Expository Times 125, no. 11 (August 2014): 572. Accessed December 10, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0014524614529867.

[12] Steven Nadler, “Spinoza and Scripture: A Colloquium Introduction,” Journal of the History of Ideas 74, no. 4 (October 2013): 662. Accessed December 8, 2015, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/docview/1443782250?accountid=12085

[13] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), loc. 4755, Kindle.

[14] Howard, Joshua, loc. 6532, Kindle.

[15] Dale Ralph Davis, Commentaries on Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel (Escondido, CA: The Ephesians Four Group, 2015), loc. 1133, Kindle.

[16] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 5.1.17, trans. William Whiston, Josephus: The Complete Works (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 115.

[17] Howard, Joshua, loc. 6611, Kindle.

 

Bibliography

Davis, Dale Ralph. Commentaries on Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel. The Ephesians Four Group: Escondido, CA, 2015.

Hess, Richard S. Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 6 of the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Edited by Donald J. Wiseman. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996.

Howard Jr., David M. Joshua. Vol. 5 of The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. Edited by E. Ray Clendenen and Kenneth A. Mathews. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishers, 1998.

Josephus. The Antiquities of the Jews 5.1.17. Translated by William Whiston. Josephus: The Complete Works. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.

Monson, John M. Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. Edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Na’aman, Nadav. “The Sanctuary of the Gibeonites Revisted.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 9 no. 2 (2009): 117, accessed December 8, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156921109X12520501747714.

Nadler, Steven. “Spinoza and Scripture: A Colloquium Introduction.” Journal of the History of Ideas. 74, no. 4 (October 2013): 662. Accessed December 8, 2015. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/docview/1443782250?accountid=12085

Nisbet, Euan G. “Joshua 10, the Gibeon strewn meteorite field in Namibia, and the Chelyabinsk fall.” The Expository Times 125, no. 11 (August 2014): 572. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0014524614529867.

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

Knowledge Versus Obedience

As a minister it is easy for me to critique another person by their depth of knowledge, the logic they use, and the way they present an argument. It sounds a little prideful to say that, but don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that I have everything mastered, myself. It’s just part of my every day life to study, teach, and speak in front of people so I look closer at those things.  A basketball player will watch another basketball player with a more critical, discerning eye than the regular fan, and a welder will gauge another welder’s work more closely than I would. So while most people who attend church are listening to what the pastor has to say, when a pastor actually gets to attend another church, it’s easy for us to sit there measuring not only what is said, but how it is said. I’m sure most pastors try to be gracious and understanding, but like everyone else, it’s not always quick and easy to “turn off” the job.

That’s a big reason why it always means more to get a compliment from someone who works in the same field. Not only do they know what they are talking about, but they can judge closer, too.  The best compliment I ever received for doing radio play by play for basketball, came from another radio announcer.  And the best compliments I’ve received for preaching, came from another preacher. It just means more coming from them.

The thing is, however, sometimes in the midst of feeling… ummm… qualified to criticize… 

God steps in and humbles you.

If you haven’t read the discipleship training book T4T, you really should. (It’s reasonably priced on the Kindle, but expensive as a paperback for some reason. Regardless, it’s still worth a LOT more than the goofy $18 paperback price…)  Among the gems you find is the observation that (and I’m paraphrasing here)…

Spiritual growth is not only measured by how much you know, but  also by how much you obey.

So even if I might have my doctrine fine-tuned better than someone else, or might be able to deliver a sermon with more creativity and force, or put together a better organized system of outreach…

…Hey, a guy can dream…

Even if I could do all of that better than someone else, what does it matter if I’m not obeying Christ?

We sometimes judge each other by our doctrine, or some measure of performance. We have baptism figured out, or we understand Bible prophecy better, or we have a better grasp of the New Covenant in Jesus. Maybe our church is better at praise and worship, or our greeting ministry is ten times better than some other group. But what if instead of measuring each other by doctrine, or some outward appearance, we measured each other by our obedience to Christ in our lives?  You know, the actual “fruit’ test where we look for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control etc…?

Sounds obvious? It’s not.

Over the past month I’ve had encounters with people who were extremely opinionated over some point of doctrine and were interested in arguing with me over it.  Well, it’s probably more accurate to say they wanted to educate me because it was hard for me to say more than a sentence or two before I would be interrupted and they continued on with their points.

While I wouldn’t want to judge their specific motivations, I think it’s fair to say that from time to time all of us want to out-argue someone else, or prove our belief is right, because of a selfish desire to feed our ego.  There are also a few people, you probably call them know-it-alls, who always want to be the smartest person in the room. Or on Facebook.

I was thinking these very thoughts, judging them a bit for not letting ME speak enough, and judging their views because they disagreed with ME.  I’ll even admit I thought: hey, our church is way bigger than yours!  But that’s when God hit me with the question…

Who is obeying me in their life?

And that ladies and gentlemen, is an entirely different question than who has their doctrine correct on the New Testament or how many people attend on Sunday. It’s also an entirely more important question.

Some Scripture is vaguely coming to mind here, hmmm… something about not being hearers of the word only, but being doers…. Jesus said something about building a house on sand if you don’t do what he says… knowing a tree by it’s fruit…it’s not what goes into a man but what comes out… but hey… that’s just the Bible.

Anyway, for one of those persons especially, I had to admit they seemed to be faithful to God in how they lived. In fact, I admired their faithfulness.

So while I might still think I’m right on the doctrine part…

They win this time. 🙂

Dear Senior Class 2014…

Thirteen years ago when you got home from your first day of kindergarten, most of us parents picked you up and asked, “How was your first day of school?”  A lot has happened since then. You tried to make good grades, you excelled in sports, in music, in art, or maybe in science.  It’s really amazing the talents you have developed.

This past week I picked up my daughter from school and this time my question was, “How was your last day at school?”  You have reached the last day, and just like that first day, we are excited for you and proud of you as we cheer for your success in life.

Did you know God cares about your success, too?  The Bible says “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”  Knowledge can help you achieve the desires of your heart, of course, but God can do things no one else can. He has ultimate control over our success or failure.

I don’t know if you believe that or not. The Bible predicted “scoffers” would come in the last days and they’re here.  People will make fun of you for believing in Jesus. Religion is old-fashioned. We are evolving past it they say.  Bill Mahr says religion is the source of all our problems, and Bill Nye seems to think you can’t be a scientist or help the human race advance if you believe God created everything.

They can sound convincing, but that road doesn’t end well. The Bible talks about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but it’s worth noting that it should have been Abraham, Isaac, and Esau.  Esau was the oldest son and should have been the next in line. His father loved him, wanted to pass everything down to him, but Esau just didn’t care.

He only cared about the here and now, and agreed to sell his birthright to his brother. The Bible says, he “despised” his birthright.  That decision destroyed his future.  That’s why we remember Abraham, Isaac, and his younger brother Jacob instead of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau.

You’ve heard people say God has a plan for your life, but you don’t have to care either.  The world will tell you not to worry about it. The world cares more about the here and now, but I believe if you go down that road, like Esau, you’ll miss out.

So here are three old fashioned things to hang on to no matter what the world says: Continue reading

Cool People Saying Christian Things: Mike Fisher

OTT0205-sensjl“I take it very seriously,” Fisher says. “We’re both doing this thing together, but I take it seriously that we make sure we’re encouraging each other and praying together and growing spiritually. That’s such an important thing. The closer we feel to God, the closer we feel to each other. When we’re in the Word and growing and doing things we need to be doing, it makes the relationship so much better.”

-NHL star Mike Fisher talking about his marriage with country music singer Carrie Underwood and their faith in God.

Intelligent People Saying Christian Things: Ben Carson

Ben Carson
“What we need to do is come up with something simple. And when I pick up my Bible, you know what I see? I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and he’s given us a system. It’s called a tithe.”

-Ben Carson, renown neurosurgeon and the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, speaking at the White House Prayer Breakfast in February 2013.

Intelligent People Saying Christian Things

2101809_G“It just goes to show that in life, you can’t look at it like you’ve got to push things professionally, or whatever. God’s got a plan for you beyond your own ability to even dream and imagine what can happen.”

-John Harbaugh, head coach of the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens reflecting on being turned down by several universities for head coaching positions before getting a call from the Ravens.

Sometimes I’m Glad Bad Things Happen to Good People

Can you buy God with money?  One guy tried.  And while we might scold him for it, truth is our modern day church often tries to buy God with good works, church attendance, giving in the offering plate, some sort of “commitment”, etc…  In both the case of the man in Acts 9, and in our more modern version, God really isn’t for sale.  In fact, sometimes instead of getting favors, prosperity, health, and an easy life in return for following God, we might get some “bad” things.  Thank goodness.

Sound crazy? Let me explain… Continue reading